Jilly: Make Me Care

Copyright: chepko / 123RF Stock PhotoHow was your week?

Last Sunday I admitted that I messed up the synopsis for my romantic fantasy WIP by getting so engrossed with the fantasy plot that I forgot to make it clear the story is a romance driven by a fantasy adventure, not a fantasy with occasional romantic interludes.

This week I learned the same lesson all over again.

I’ve been wrestling with one particular scene of my WIP. I’m embarrassed to say how long I’ve spent on it. First I squeezed all the life out of it by solving the big crisis instead of making it worse. Then I compounded the felony by writing (and rejecting) a dozen versions of the H&H wrangling about stuff that needed resolving, but not at that place and time. I bored myself writing it, so I have no doubt it would have been dull as ditchwater to read.

Things improved once I realized I should escalate the problem into a desperate one instead of making everything okay. The tension increased, and the boring chitchat simply couldn’t happen, because the H&H were too busy firefighting to arm-wrestle about personal matters. Then I had to find an active and credible way to get them out of the critical situation. It took me I don’t know how many false starts, but I finally figured it out.

I was thrilled. I thought it was job done, until I tried to write it. Somehow the scene still felt flat, even though the characters were in motion and the stakes were high. Then, in a wonderful moment of serendipity, I saw this post entitled Substantial Fiction on the blog of one of my favorite authors, Ilona Andrews.

A reader wrote in to ask: Have you ever read a story where exciting things are happening but nothing feels…substantial? The whole post is well worth reading, but the bit I found particularly helpful was this:

Usually, when the stakes are high, but nothing feels “big or urgent,” it happens because the writer failed to establish an emotional connection between the reader and the main character.

Ilona went on to say that she recently scrapped the plot of her newest book and began again because although the stakes were high, the main character was not emotionally invested in those stakes, so why should anyone else care?

That was my second *headdesk* in as many weeks.

In my problem scene, Alexis is emotionally invested. Her personal stakes are incredibly high, but I hadn’t shown her feeling it so how could I expect the reader to feel it? I was so focused on making the scene active and exciting that I totally forgot the action is there to drive the emotion. So the goals and turning points of the scene were action events and not emotional ones. In other words, I put all the emphasis in entirely the wrong place. Again.

I re-wrote it – again – substituting my action turning points for emotional ones, and finally I feel as though I’m getting it right.

I think I keep falling into the action trap because it’s the first time I’ve written a story with life-and-death stakes. I’m finding the world-building and adventure plot challenging (in a good, fun way), while the emotional story is already there in my head. Which is great as long as I get it out of my head and on to the page.

At least this time I figured out there was something wrong.

I’m going to put a sticky note on my laptop until I get over this: MAKE ME CARE.

I’ll let you know if I learn my lesson. I really hope I don’t find myself posting about this again.

What did you learn (or re-learn) this week?

2 thoughts on “Jilly: Make Me Care

  1. I think my lesson this week was the corollary: why does the character care? It really is a hard lesson to learn, and I haven’t quite cracked the code yet. So many plates to spin in a scene, and while I could go back and layer some stuff in, there are a few plates that have to spin for me from the beginning in some sort of coordinated fashion: what do the characters in this scene care about? How are they coming in conflict with each other? How does that move me closer to the Big Blow Up at the end of the story?

    I would like to chuck a bunch of the boring bits, but I’m so afraid of leaving my readers in the dust, wondering “What? How did we get from point A to point G? What happened to 1/4th of the alphabet?” I don’t trust myself to go back and fill in the gaps, either, although I’m working hard on those trust issues. Sigh.

  2. First off, congratulations on making progress on your problem scene, Jilly! That’s great news. Now, if you’re anything like me, it will start to shape up in another 600 drafts or so. (My critique partner is always writing “More emotion!” after all my paragraphs, so I feel your pain.)

    What did I relearn last week? I think just this: the book doesn’t write itself. We have to put in the hard work. And speaking of that…

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